Sutras I:21 & I:22
Samadhi is near for those
with intense ardor.
Also, a further
differentiation is made of mild, moderate, and intense.
Patanjali tips his
hand in the debate over whether we should docilely go with the flow or make
efforts toward a spiritual goal. There is nothing slipshod or accidental about
the practice of yoga in his book. Samadhi is definitely something that comes
about through intense effort. Nor is there anything resembling Christian grace
where some divine being bestows perfection on you, or anything to pray to. It’s
simply a matter of getting your act together. Humans are off-kilter due to our
divisive concepts, and we regain our equipoise by restoring unity to our
vision. Unity is termed samadhi, sameness, in the present work.
Although Nitya has
discussed it at length, we have just arrived at the moment Patanjali introduces
samadhi. It can’t hurt to recall a paragraph from the Preface:
as all rivers flow to the ocean, when all thoughts and inner movements merge in
a state of absorption, samadhi comes.
Samadhi means “union.” Most people think of the union referred to by Yoga as an
act of conjunction of two disparate elements. This is incorrect. When a
sleeping person wakes up, there is no conjunction. There is only the transformation
of an innate nature, which is experienced as an empirical awareness. Similarly,
in Yoga, what is happening is not a union with a second reality but a change
from heterogeneity to homogeneity. In other words, you gain a unitive vision of
life in your understanding, dedicated program of action, and progressive
cultivation of happiness, which is identical with the happiness of the world.
The class discussed
wakefulness for awhile. Paul helped us to distinguish the ordinary waking mind
from the wide-awake witness of the turiya, the transcendental version. Being
awake is a mysterious state, since we always think of ourselves as awake. It is
only when we enter a subsequent state of wakefulness that we can tell that we
were previously asleep. For instance, when we are angry we feel wide awake, but
after we calm down we are likely to feel that we were in the grip of some
terrible misunderstanding. We decided it was essential to always question
whether we are really awake or are acting under some undetectable compulsion.
Here again, outside input is very useful, so long as it is intelligent. Recent
examples of Christians who kill to uphold their tenet of “Thou shalt not kill”
provide a cautionary tale of how we can be led astray if we meekly accept what
we are told. Cults insist first and foremost that their followers cast out
doubts and avoid inconvenient questioning. Going along without resistance is
passed off as an advanced spiritual technique, but it is more likely to be a
soporific to lull the mind back to sleep.
This subject brought
us back to the aspect of effort left hanging last week, from sutra 20:
discernment or discrimination. How do we discern what is helpful and what
isn’t? It’s a tough nut to crack, and while we tapped on its shell a bit, we
didn’t actually expose the meat inside. The implication is that some things
promote yoga and some don’t. No one wants to change their lifestyle to
accommodate waking up, unless their ardor happens to be intense. Most people
find yoga to be of passing interest, or of middling attractiveness, but nothing
to alter behavior over. Luckily we have a few class members who have put the
teachings to the test and found their lives improved by it. That tends to
ratchet up their interest level.
For example, Nitya
tells us here that “In the spiritual pursuit, the idea is to give up totally
and the receiving acts like a fountain where what is given in the form of love
is received back in the form of grace.” Moni told a gratifying tale of her
recent experience at work, where her kindness and love for her clients is being
reciprocated in surprising ways. Because she refuses to become upset or hostile
with them, she has overcome the chronic negativity of some of the struggling
souls who come to her. Where a bureaucratic attitude would likely embroil Moni
in endless wrangling, her serenity and unselfishness invite the best from
others. It is wonderful that despite all the constraints built in to a
less-than-perfect system, Moni can bring a lot of light into it. Not only that,
but it’s nice to see that she’s getting appreciation back from a tough job,
because that’s what makes it possible to bring her kind of energy to it.
The biggest hurdle
to yoga is a drugged mind, and the hardest discernment to make is what to do
about it. Western societies in particular are sozzled in sauce pretty much all
the time. In the US, regular alcohol use is engaged in by around two-thirds of
the population, though because the very elderly drink little, the figure for
those in their prime is over four-fifths. Licit and illicit psychoactive drugs
push the numbers higher, probably over ninety percent. Television is famous as
a mental eraser, and should probably be included as a highly popular drug as
well. Other countries may not be as maniacally wired as the US, but this is an
While drug use makes
life pleasant in the short run, it tends to freeze the psyche at the level it
begins its involvement. I used to wonder why many students in my classes were
so slow to learn, not so much in their minds as in their vitals, until I
realized they were high on something, most commonly alcohol. The presentation
of profound subjects was just another form of amusement for them, a flickering
play of light and shade, to be forgotten almost as soon as it had ended. The
ideas might stick in an abstract way, but they weren’t able to be implemented.
They couldn’t get to the core. Interesting philosophy might assuage the
conscience that the student was imbibing something meaningful, but it was just
For the average
person in the average congregation, being mildly inebriated makes them much
more vulnerable to manipulation, and much less likely to hold to high ideals in
the face of public pressure. Psychological testing has demonstrated how easily
we can be manipulated by other people, especially if they wear the vestments of
authority. And most of that testing has been done on sober subjects. So the
most important aspect of discernment is to not have any excess baggage when you
address the Absolute, in meditation, in class, or whenever you want to be
serious. Yoga is not about learning to be a subservient follower. It is a way
to gain independence, on every level and in every sense. Paradoxically, when we
attain true freedom we are closest to attunement with the totality. If we are
dependent on externals we are tuned out, even as we imagine we are tuned in.
Following up on ways
we discern our path poorly, Deb groused about how tired she was of reading
about spirituality, and feeling that she needed and wanted to live it and
experience it directly. Substituting ideas for direct experience is something
our brains readily do, because of how they work, but the heaven worlds we
envision are more like a fool’s paradise. Books, movies and other media are big
sources of ideas, but they provide ersatz experience that only mimics the real
is at the heart of the game: how to keep it real. If we don’t take the ideas we
imbibe and apply them, we are living in a world of make believe. Part of us is
likely chafe at the superficiality of pretend spirituality, so we feel
dissatisfied, and there can be conflicts with our mind if it insists that what
we are doing is something special. If we misunderstand the feeling, we might
reject the very thing we most need. That voice of dissatisfaction within is our
inner guru trying to get us to wake up from yet another dream, a really
captivating dream of imaginary spirituality. Of course, we can medicate our
inner guru and make it be quiet, which provides an ersatz solution to an ersatz
problem. But a better choice is to address the problem directly by vivifying
our encounters with life.
On a related note,
our modern educational systems unintentionally train us to think of ourselves
as more knowledgeable than anyone else. This is probably a defense posture
against being taught side-by-side with somebody really sharp, yet it can have
the same effect as leaving your doubts at the church door, in that valuable
suggestions will be pointedly ignored. I am always amazed at the highly
intelligent and educated people whose minds are slammed shut against some very
important ideas, proving the assertion of the Isa Upanishad, verse 9:
blind darkness enter they
darkness greater than that, as it were, they
That delight in
The solution is given in
who this pair conjointly knows,
non-knowledge passing over death
With knowledge wins
Sutra I: 23
Or, by continuous
contemplation on Isvara.
Prior to the start
of class we had a discussion about a friend currently in extremis. It was so
heartening to hear the intelligent sympathy that everyone genuinely felt, and
the wide range of its embrace. Everyone brought a slightly different
perspective to bear, which provided mutual enrichment for penetrating to the
nub. It reminded us of the value of a gathering of friends, the geometric
increase potentiated by linking minds in series. Not to mention revealing the
innate beauty of each and every participant. This turned out to be a perfect
overture to tonight’s Sutra.
Nitya describes the
emergence of Isvara as Patanjali’s term for the Absolute. Samkhya is a system
of duality based on prakriti and purusa, meaning nature and spirit or matter
and energy. Isvara is the term for the totality of purusas, as though all the
individual souls in the universe were molecules in a titanic oversoul.
related items together to allow them to understand the world better. Really,
everybody does this quite naturally. The word for ‘chair’ for instance
represents a general concept that can include many different specific instances
of items that can be called chairs. Sometimes even a fallen log or a stone is a
chair. Superficially, they are quite different from your favorite easy chair in
your living room, but as chairs their relationship becomes quite simple to
grasp. We don’t usually find people arguing over whether a log is a chair,
because it’s easy to see how it could be one. So prakriti, nature, is easy to
Spirit is a little
trickier to generalize, and people have a much easier time fighting over their
differing versions. We readily acknowledge a spark of consciousness in each
living being, but it takes a yogi or a philosopher to see that they are all
integral parts of an indescribable absolute Self or Isvara. We might lump
beings, human and otherwise, into various categories, but these are more based
on physical characteristics that spiritual ones. We have to penetrate below the
surface to begin to comprehend the oneness of all beings, but happily, as we do
go deeper the oneness readily becomes apparent.
Patanjali is going
to dedicate a significant part of his magnum opus to this concept, so more will
be forthcoming. For now we can see that he has made a distinction between
samadhi, sameness or unity, and Isvara, the Self. The division parallels the
former distinction of those who make no effort and those who do, and is even
closer to the distinction made in Chapter XII of the Bhagavad Gita, where
Arjuna wants to know if he should contemplate the formless void or personify it
in some fashion. Krishna tells him that the personal version is easier, but
that both take you to the same place. Similarly, the only reason to have
samadhi and Isvara both is that samadhi is union with the Self. At their core
they make reference to the same experience.
The class discussed
what continuous contemplation means. It sounds like you are never supposed to
get off your yoga mat, but that isn’t the idea. I started us off with how when
driving a car you cannot drop your attention for even a moment or you will
crash. We don’t have to anxiously fixate on the road and hold the wheel with a
grip of doom, we can relax and enjoy the ride. But we have to have some
awareness dedicated to relating to what’s happening around us.
The gist of
continuous contemplation is that everything that happens is taken as meaningful
to your search for truth. There are no random disconnected events. They are all
linked within the oneness of the Self. So you don’t dismiss anything, you
cherish it. When something happens to you, you examine it to see what your part
in it is. And you listen to your friends and advisors, who are likely to pick
up on what you are missing.
Deb mentioned that
early in her time with Nitya he told her that the bedrock of spirituality was
honesty. We are prying through our natural obfuscating mentality to reclaim a
straightforward assessment of every situation. We don’t warp it to suit our
preferences. Nor is it a random world of “every man for himself.” We are
interconnected, and we float in an ocean of truth. It’s not always easy to
descry, but that’s what we’re working toward. Of course, this takes effort,
well-directed, intelligent effort. Continuously.
A lot of examples
were offered, enough to fill a small volume, but I’ll just pick one or two.
Susan has been working hard to back off from her desire to micromanage some
factors in her life. She heard a psychologist say that very often in
conversation we don’t really listen to the other person. We have an agenda, and
what we say is a gambit to manipulate the other person into bringing up the
subject we are dying to talk about. So the conversation isn’t a real exchange,
but more like a boxing match, with each side maneuvering for advantage. Susan
realized that if she really and truly listened to the other person, by
suspending her own agenda, she would learn a lot. More important, she clearly
saw how that kind of manipulative behavior killed the spirit of exchange, and
made the other person erect walls of their own. Listening invites the other to
come out; lecturing drives the other person into hiding. Of course, you will
succeed in getting your ideas across much better with someone if there is
mutual sharing than if there is mutual hostility. But Susan went one step
farther, and asked herself why she needed to propagate a program at all. By not
taking the reins, the other learns to ride, and that is a joy for both.
Susan also talked
about codependency, how we want so much to help the other person that we
sometimes give them enough rope to hang themselves. It’s very hard for us to
say no to a friend or family member, so we either string them along or indulge
their negativity. One hard part of being honest with others, is to let them
know, gently but firmly, that we disagree with them. In the same way, we resist
being honest with ourselves because it’s easier to “go along” with our habits
than to take ourselves to task. When we allow for destructive behavior, whether
in our self or in others, we are allowing a lacuna in our continuous
contemplation. Walking the razor’s edge between this kind of standing up and
holding back is yet another art form of yogic discipline.
Sutra I: 24
Isvara is a distinct purusha
unaffected by the propensities of affliction, action, and fruition.
Typical of Indian
wisdom, Isvara, the Absolute, is more easily defined by what it is not than
what it is. Patanjali expands karma, action, into a threefold process to teach
us more about it, and in the process distinguish it from ordinary purushas, who
experience karma as a matter of course.
Jan wondered about
the word ‘distinct’, whether it meant that Isvara was a distinct thing. Not so
much that, but the idea is to distinguish it from ordinary purushas, the
distinction being that it is unaffected by karma.
Nitya uses a nice
metaphor of a game of pool in his commentary to describe the threefold karma.
Players line up in their minds what they want to make happen, then they strike
the cue ball with a stick, after which balls are knocked around in a more or
less unpredictable fashion. The results follow the laws of physics, but only
rarely does the ordinary person do everything just right to make things bounce
the way they want. More often they have to assess how everything ends up and
plan their next shot accordingly. While a helpful metaphor, as Anne said, life
is more like a game with an infinite number of balls all bashing into each
other, and going every which way. Not only that, but the table is uneven,
curved and bent so that the balls never go exactly where you aim them.
The state of
ignorance in which we plan our shots in this crazy arcade is the affliction
mentioned here. We are only in possession of a tiny amount of the information
and skill we need to knock a ball into the pocket. The shot itself is the
actual karmic action, and the way the balls realign afterwards is the fruition
of the action.
Isvara, then, is
like a light above the table, illuminating the game but unaffected by it.
The admission that
we act in ignorance brought a volley of stories from all participants. It seems
we cannot help but imagine that everyone else knows what they are doing, while
we inwardly chafe at our own inadequate knowledge.
It's nice to know we're all in the same boat.
Anne and John talked
about raising kids, how you had a wonderful vision of how it was going to all
unfold, but then the random factor of the kids’ own interests and desires
“skewed the pitch,” as cricket players call an uneven field. They roll away
from you like a cue ball zooming toward its own destiny, and where they end up
is anyone’s guess and everyone’s anxiety.
Anne and John's oldest son needed
open heart surgery
at the age of two. Anne related the intense feelings of having to make a life
and death decision for her child while not being sure what was the right course
to pursue. For us ordinary purushas, our lives are punctuated with agonizing
periods like that, thankfully not very often. John and Anne had a successful
outcome, but there are no guarantees.
John felt that luck
played a big part in karma, and that’s right. Scientists like to boast that if
they had complete knowledge of some process they could predict outcomes, even
to the end of time, but they are deluded. We never have complete knowledge of anything, and the sheer
volume of karma, vast and interwoven as it is, endlessly produces new and
unanticipated results. Krishna says that luck is a quality of the Absolute in
Chapter X of the Gita. Luck is the same as Chance or Fate. Quantum mechanics
bows to Chance as what determines the behavior of particles. As Deb pointed
out, we only know what our luck was after the fact, as a fait accompli. We may
hope and pray for good luck, but we only know about what kind we’ve received
when we examine the new pattern in which our pool balls are scattered over the
And while we call it good or bad, it's merely
a reading of how the balls are lying after all the myriad forces have acted on
them up to that point. Nor is it ever static even for an instant.
In honor of this
concept, Bill reread us Nitya’s great line from the commentary: “A randomness
that assumes a course of purposiveness, and a purposive maneuvering that is
mounted on a horse of uncertainty work hand in hand. With innumerable such
occurrences of randomness all around, the course of action is determined within
a field of uncertainty.”
Paul related a funny
story from his days as a firefighter. A really tough-looking guy was having a
heart attack, so everyone on the call steeled themselves for resistance from
him. People under duress can get pretty nasty. The ambulance attendant ordered
him in a bossy tone to get onto the stretcher. He answered meekly in a high,
lisping voice that couldn’t he please take his slippers with him? Which
slippers? Those fuzzy ones over there. Ah, so he was another meek soul just
trying to appear fearsome for protection. The point being that we should be
careful not to make too many false assumptions, since we are indeed colossally
reminded me of a friend from Texas whose grandmother was a hard-bitten
holy-roller fundamentalist. She lived her life being damn sure of what lay
ahead for her in heaven, sitting on the right hand of the Lord, and she wasn’t
shy about carrying on about it all day long. But when death approached, all her
bluster fell away like tissue paper in a rainstorm. She spent her last days
whining like a little girl, overwhelmed by terror of the unknown gulf yawning
So it’s wise to
acknowledge our ignorance, and get used to it. We don’t need to impress anyone
that we know what’s going on, though everyone seems obsessed about it. As Bill
said, lots of religions tell lots of stories about what’s coming up, and it makes them very popular. Jan read a number
of such tall tales in the period after her father died, but they didn’t satisfy
her. From her centered perspective they seemed bizarre and unnecessary. The
bottom line is we will meet our fate squarely only if we have discarded our
unfounded expectations. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to play the game with
expertise, but only that we surrender our false posture of smug wisdom based on
other people’s fairy tales.
Isvara is not
pandering any such stories. It is unaffected by the all-absorbing game we are
caught up in. Bringing in that detached perspective will help us live our lives
more fully and with less anxiety about the lion’s share over which we have no
We closed with a
fitting word from a wise musician that Deb came across this week. Norman
Cousins, in his book Anatomy of an Illness, quotes the then almost ninety-year-old Pablo Casals,
the master cellist, on the role of the individual in bringing about world
peace. In conversation they had come to the conclusion that the biggest problem
was that the individual felt helpless:
answer to helplessness is not so very complicated,” Don Pablo said. “A man can
do something for peace without having to jump into politics. Each man has
inside him a basic decency and goodness. If he listens to it and acts on it, he
is giving a great deal of what it is the world needs most. It is not
complicated but it takes courage. It takes courage for a man to listen to his
own goodness and act on it. Do we dare to be ourselves? This is the question
In that Isvara the seed of
the omniscient is not exceeded.
The class had a
tough time honing in on the meaning of the sutra, and it took a little digging
to figure out why. Because of the methodology of Patanjali, the comments on
sutras 25 and 27 are reversed, in a way. In Nitya’s mind, pranava should have
come before omniscience. In a section like this one on Isvara, Nitya would have
been steeped into all the ideas at once, so it’s not hard to understand why it
came out the way it did. Regardless, to make sense of this sutra, it helps to
read the comments on 27, and vice versa.
subject is broadly unified, so reading all about the pranava of sutra 27 as the
designator of Isvara still led us to ponder Isvara the omniscient. Aum, the
pranava, introduces the fourfold system of correlation of wakeful, dream,
causal and transcendental that Nataraja Guru superimposed on the Cartesian
coordinates. Isvara as the seed of the omniscient presents what I call the
pulsation model, of a seed or point source expanding into full expression,
which is then epitomized in a new seed.
The identity of the
seed of the causal with the seed of the fountain source landed in Moni’s mind
with an audible “thunk.” The whole group heard it arrive. As she explained it,
when you look at a seed, there is nothing of what it will expand into visible
in it, it is just this indistinguishable stuff. It is purely potential. Isvara
is the absolute potentiality of everything.
Bill helped us to
extract the omniscient element that is present but hard to grasp in Nitya’s
comments. When each of the four states of consciousness reaches its natural,
unsurpassable limit, that is called omniscience. It’s not a limit in the sense
of a big iron wall, but when waking consciousness goes beyond a certain
transactional verity, it becomes dream consciousness, and so on. At the outer
limit of the wakeful we have the brilliant scientists of various persuasions.
At the limits of the dream, Nitya goes on, “those who arrive at the frontiers
of the world of imagination are recognized as master poets, master artists,
master playwrights, and so on. In this case also, omniscience is marked by the
unfoldment of a person’s creative power so that it can be taken to its ultimate
The causal is
bounded by the possible, which is defined by the laws of the universe. Nitya
puts this beautifully: “What is not present as a potential in the cause cannot
manifest in the effect. Conversely, anything manifested as an effect is
indicative of a latent cause, a hidden seed. Here, the limitation arises from a
pulsation within manifestation, expanding from a cause to an enlarged field of
effect and, in the same manner, centripetally turning inward to epitomize the entire
effect into a causal factor.”
The limits of the
fourth state, the transcendental, are the canceling out of the knower and the
known. What more can you say about it? Whatever it is horizontalizes into the
other three states.
Paul detected a
subtle mechanical aura behind Patanjali’s philosophy. He wondered if this meant
we were supposed to attain samadhi by incremental steps, or if, as he
understood it, it was to be grasped by some kind of quantum leap. Infinity
cannot be attained by adding one plus one plus one for a very long time. So how
do you get there? Paul was expressing the frustration of several people that
Patanjali seems to be beating around the bush, not getting to the point. But he
does have a very definite methodology in mind. Hopefully some patience and a
few chocolate chip cookies will make all the suffering worthwhile.
highlights the difference between unitive Advaita and Patanjali’s dualistic
Yoga. Here Isvara is an omniscient seed. When it expands into manifestation it
is no longer Isvara, but becomes one of the other purushas. As Deb rightly
pointed out, in Advaita the Absolute becomes all this, wakeful, dream and deep
sleep. The Gurukula stands for the unitive, but we can accept some duality for
purposes of discussion and contemplation. When all is said and done, the
differences fade away into nothingness.
Much of our
discussion followed Nancy and Anita’s taking each side of this polarity. Anita
held that the great masters of history have all gone away into caves or mountaintops
or had other vision quests to achieve what they achieved, and their examples
have inspired whole movements and religions. Nancy averred that, like
honeybees, we are all part of a larger, coherent reality all the time, even if
we aren’t aware of it. There was a lot of territory to explore here, and the
synthesis of both aspects provides a very rich sense of what gives life
The synthesis in
question is that you can listen to your own inner voice, your dharma, and it
will lead you where you should be going. That may be far from the madding
crowd, or right in the midst of the most chaotic events, depending on your
The catch is that if
we are pressed by outside circumstances into serving someone else’s dharma, we
may live an unfulfilled life, and there are billions of examples of this all
around the globe. Sure, people usually make the best they can of their tough
situations, but their lives are often very far from being like those of the
busy bees who soar through the sky to sip nectar from exuberant flowers and
return to make the sweetest of decoctions. Likewise, if we follow someone
else’s route to enlightenment, the very arbitrariness of it can kill the
spirit. If it kindles a fire in the heart, fine, but if it’s only an expression
of discontent with the present it may lead to a dead end. Plus, as Deb said,
most of those stories about the masters are allegorical. The “going away” can
happen right here, right now.
To Patanjali, we
must seek the seed of omniscience by subtracting all of manifestation and
returning to its source. This is exactly Anita’s point. To Narayana Guru and
Nancy, all this is an expression of the Absolute, so we can embrace it right
now. And we can see that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but mutually
Sutra I: 26
That [Isvara] is the teacher
of the ancients also, not being limited by time.
An ideal subject for
personal exploration united a small group on one of our rare outdoors classes.
As the hot day mellowed into comfortable warmth and a half moon brightened in a
peach-colored sunset over the coastal mountains, we shared our thoughts about the sutra.
The evidence of an
eternal teaching principle of the universe, called by some the guru, is richly
evidenced in all our lives. Very often we take its effects for granted,
distracted by the unappreciative attitudes carved out by modern education, and
imagine we are merely the passive victims of Fate. So it is good to take stock
once in awhile, to stop and call to mind a few of our manifold blessings.
that we usually don’t realize the transformations we are going through until
after they happen. It’s true that the conscious part of our mind is the last to
know what’s going on. Often we resist change and cling to the comforts of the
Known. But life’s educational force can work behind the scenes even better than
in the full glare of daylight. Eugene also noted this, that we may
intentionally try to disrupt the process of our unfoldment, but it happens anyway.
Our knowing is in some ways a block to evolution. Perhaps this is why the Isha
Upanishad reminds us that those who relish knowledge dwell in even greater
darkness than those who worship ignorance.
Each of us can
retrospect over our lives and discern certain points where major watershed
events occurred, but when we look closer they appear
very much like seamless parts of a continuous unfoldment. When a seed sprouts
and shoots upward, develops branches and leaves, then produces flowers and
finally fruits filled with new seeds, it is one long, beautiful gesture. Yet we
might notice the first stem division and think, “This is where the plant began
to become itself.” A fetus develops similarly, evidencing a continuous
unfoldment of a constructive program, yet as observers we take note of the
moments when the heart starts beating or the limbs begin to bud out, and think
“Aha! that’s the important part.” The child’s internal program continues even
after birth, but in the midst of all the chaos we begin to think that outside
forces are doing the shaping. Only a contemplative will be able to see the
internal unfoldment that is imbibing elements from the environment, drawing
them to it in an intelligently planned manner. So it turns out that we are not
victims of Fate: Fate is a victim of us. Better yet, we are partners in one of
the greatest stories ever told: our life.
I don’t want to
trivialize people’s personal narratives by recounting them here. Deb mentioned
how some of her key stories began to seem like a cartoon version after she told
them a few times, so she just stopped. Her friend Jane’s idea was that we
carried our stories like identity cards to wear over our breast pocket, as a
way to prove ourselves to others. It’s a tremendous relief when we have developed
enough confidence to not need to ratify ourselves anymore. It also requires
bravery, because we live in a suspicious world that may well treat us as
criminals until proven otherwise. And it might not
even be interested in our proof….
Each of you has your
own portfolio of stories, and you can recount them to yourselves and share them
with your best friends at rare moments. You can even send them in to the class
notes group if you wish, since sometimes sharing is a way of letting them go.
As Brenda pointed out, hanging on to our outdated self-descriptions is a mistake
most of us make. She described one of her main stories from the past, one which
served her well for a long time. Then one day she met a wise teacher who told
her that it was time to drop it. It had become a narrative about a person who
no longer existed, and letting go of it would permit her to be what she was in
the present. She was amazed at how freeing it was to let it go.
Eugene felt he has
recently been working through that very stage. His favorite story has been very
successful and useful to him, so it isn’t easy to relinquish, and maybe it
isn’t fully time yet. His inner guru will know, and since he listens to it he
won’t be too far behind in making any necessary
adjustments. Time lags are endemic to humanity,
it seems. And it is
possibly as much a mistake to let go too soon as too late. Our stories give our
lives coherence, and help us to develop more complex aspects of ourselves.
There is tremendous value in them. Only, we shouldn’t become dependent on them.
They are like the wake our boat makes as we eagerly plow ahead.
So, looking back
along the timeline of our lives we can detect a smooth flow toward becoming who
we are, or at least what we appear to be for the moment, because the flow is
continuous. There is no point when it becomes a
finished product. A big part of the fun
of life is not knowing what
comes next, and the fault of fixed self-narratives is that they rely on static
conceptions that pretend we are in some sense finalized.
Where our boat is now is not where we want it to stay always.
look very intentional in retrospect, but when they happened we had no idea what
they were going to lead us into. It’s really so cool! It can make us melt with
gratitude that this grand principle of learning, growth, and creative
development is such an intrinsic part of life. Really, gratitude seems to be
one of the best attitudes for fostering continued growth. And the flip side,
ingratitude, is a perfect recipe for keeping us stuck in an impoverished
conception of ourselves.
Recent brain scan
studies reveal that we become consciously aware of new states quite a long time
after the brain starts generating them. Our lives are born in darkness and grow
into the light, over and over again. And this is a lucky thing, for if we were
truly in charge we would be far poorer at the job than our inner guru. I have
often thought that if my life actually relied on me, I would rapidly find
myself face down in the ditch, a feast for flies.
When humans really
do put themselves in charge, we get the four horsemen of the apocalypse:
conquest, war, famine and death. So let's not.
Several times I have
looked back over my life to see that, with the grace of the guru, I had avoided
some serious pitfalls that I was unknowingly walking on the razor’s edge of. If
I had been aware of them at the time, I would have become giddy and fallen in
for sure, since pitfalls famously can draw and hold
our attention. Only my ignorance coupled
with the guru’s beneficent
guidance steered me through. Becoming aware of this invisible drama made me
inwardly bow to him in intense gratitude, and rededicate myself to both serving
him and fostering my own growth by adding fewer impediments.
We closed with an
idea that came to me the one time I went to Greece. The Aegean Sea is filled
with interestingly shaped islands. When you sit on one, you can see others on
the horizon, and they seem as though they are calling to you. If some creative
deity wanted to coax humans to develop a means of crossing the sea, by building
boats and learning how to propel them, it would situate those intriguing and
beckoning visions just exactly as they are. It made me realize that our life is
filled with delightful visions that we can pursue if we are so inclined, and in
the process we must necessarily learn and grow. We
might have to invent new skills. It is a
vision of a benign universe
dedicated to evolving consciousness, which is a far cry from the cold, dead
milieu of popular imagination, where we have to wrest every miserable step out
of a hostile wasteland.
By class’s end the
dark had enveloped us. We might have been the shadowy shapes we could just make
out, around which the gentle music of our voices floated in the air, or perhaps
it was only our imaginations.
Part No Part
It’s always nice to have something other than my own blah
blahs to pass along, especially when they as delightful as the following. The
first is from a new recipient and old friend, Lila Higgins from Massachusetts,
and I share her first thoughts without asking. If there is anything remotely
embarrassing I make sure to ask first, but this is from the other end of the
Thank you for sending me the
class notes. I go back to read them as there is so much work you all have been
doing, it will take me awhile to jump right in-
I did have a dream (usually
don't remember them) last night where I was with all of you - and
Peter ..... and
laughing. I felt such happiness
it has been so long since I felt that way. So some part of me in my soul is in joy to have some
connection thru you to Nitya.
Love and blessings
Wendy Oak and I have been
having a bit of a conversation about struggling with the Yoga Sutras, and her
attraction to a number of more “candy-like” approaches to spirituality. She is
in one of Nancy Yeilding’s online classes. Her words should be tucked into the
first page of any Gurukula study. She sent this with an okay to share:
Firstly to say
thank you for reading my thoughts and sending me your reply.
Lots of your
remarks spoke to me and I have brought out your class notes for
Part 1, and found that
the two go together.
I am not sure if
I do just ‘dither’ along, but I certainly have wanted my learning to be
accessible and comfortable, even if the teachings demand a more focused
approach. So in one way I have wanted to not be too challenged, yet also felt a
bit uneasy as if I was not giving it my all. Tuning into the bits I liked and
switching off from the more inaccessible bits.
Also I have dug
many wells. The sheer delight of opening up a crisp new book filled with fresh
ideas, like opening Pandora's box. Drooling over how I already apply them to my
life or maybe I can give this new one a go. Until another one comes along and
lures me into its alluring promises and magic.
alongside all these shallow wells, is the one deep one containing all Guru
Nitya’s treasures and related others.
This well is the
one which asks for full attention to haul up the bucket. No quick fixes or
flashy promises. I have visited this well many times but lowered my bucket just
as far down as I could comfortably cope with.
Now I can hear
Patanjali laughing down below. If you want me you will have to come and get me:
‘I am not yours for a leisurely read in a hammock on a summer day’.
These first 12
lessons have challenged me. I haven't ever thought of giving up but certainly
been very frustrated and resentful.
Feeling myself to
be too stupid to understand all this incomprehensible stuff. In a dither.
[Nancy has been very helpful, supportive and affirming]
So I was thrilled
to read your earlier class notes and see how others felt a bit the same in the
beginning. And how it is big choice time. And yes please I do want a
resurrection, and okay it will initially be tough. As your Richard Wilhelm
‘if a person
encounters a hindrance at the beginning of an enterprise, he must not try to
force an advance but must pause and take thought. However nothing should put
him off his course, he must persevere and constantly keep the goal in mind.’
So with my head
down the well and with determination to haul up the goodies, I am proceeding in
a more serious manner. Prepared to give it my all. And I thank you so much
Scott and your class for being so unitive.
with love from
And my own thanks
to everyone for being a part of the Gurukula family, both virtual and actual!
Isvara’s signifier is pranava
Aum is a word, more
like a sound, that designates the Absolute. In the course of life we learn to
associate sounds with concepts, and so we are always adding new features to the
words we use, based on our experiences.
The aspect we most
wholeheartedly want to append to our conceptualization is God or the Absolute
itself. We collect a lot of valuable information about these mysteries in our
studies, but still have not attained what our words and concepts designate. How
do we make the leap?
We are on the verge
of a section where we can really dig into it, or as Wendy has said we can send
our bucket down all the way to the water before we draw it back up for a peek
inside. It’s too bad that this part will be chopped up by summer breaks, so
feel free to read ahead. Or, simply meditate on the mantra Aum.
Aum is designed to
lead us back from objectivity into conceptualization, from concepts to their
point sources, and through a nondimensional point into the transcendental. Our
ordinary mind is fixated on objective aspects, so it takes a lot of repetition
to ease our focus back to its source. We do this by chanting, but also by the
regular class sessions where we examine aspects of our lives and relate them to
the center, over and over.
A good class is a
kind of nonspecific chanting of aum. First someone mentions a problem or
observation or complaint. Then we talk about it, converting it to a sensible
mental picture. Next we sit quiet and allow the externalizing trend to
dissipate, allow for an inner stillness. After that—-who knows? We don’t make
any claims, so that we don’t have any expectations, which disrupt the entire
process. What will be will be.
Nitya first mentions
the five klesas or afflictions, which we are subject to but Isvara is not. They
are: ignorance, attachment, aversion, egoism, and “excessive love of life.” We
have discussed at length how ignorance, attachment and egoism can mess up our
lives, but we did some good work with the other two. Aversion to evil is an
important attribute of a sane life, so where does it go wrong? And of course
love of life is a high value, one of the highest. So what can make it
Anita gave us a
perfect example of aversion as an impediment. During her divorce of many years
ago, she was so angry and upset she decided, “That’s it! I don’t need anybody
ever again!” Pushing her abusive husband away, she unintentionally pushed a
great many other things away as well. Her feelings of aversion spilled over
into other parts of her life. In consequence, many opportunities to love and interact with others were
blocked, and it took her years and years before she could rectify her wholesale
aversion and restore a loving basis to her life.
We assured Anita
that she was not alone in acting that way. Pretty much everyone retreats to a
well-defended fortress tower at some point in their life, and it usually takes
until middle age to realize the pickle we’re in. We think we’re pushing away
something horrible, but—-inertia being what it is, equal and opposite—-we’re
also pushing ourself back from life. But the fact that we have at last realized
what we’ve done gives us the chance to undo the locks, to come out and love
again. Anita, along with others in the class who knew exactly what she was
talking about, has thrown open the gates of her fortress self and stepped back
out into the chaos of life. This is cause for great joy, tempered only by the
sober realization that most people never find their way back out. Once in the
tower, the self-imprisonment tends to be permanent, with the soul only released
by death. We are ecstatic when another prisoner is released while alive!
Which brings up a
fine mantra by St. Bob, perfectly expressing the pinch and the desire we have
to become free once more. Sing it loud, sing it in
I Shall Be Released
ev’rything can be replaced,
They say ev’ry
distance is not near.
So I remember
Of ev’ry man who
put me here.
I see my light
From the west
unto the east.
Any day now, any day
I shall be
They say ev’ry
man needs protection,
They say that
ev’ry man must fall.
Yet I swear I see
Some place so
high above this wall.
I see my light
From the west
unto the east.
Any day now, any
I shall be
Standing next to
me in this lonely crowd,
Is a man who
swears he's not to blame.
All day long I
hear him shouting so loud,
Crying out that
he was framed.
I see my light
From the west
unto the east.
Any day now, any way now,
I shall be
© Dwarf Music
As the song indicates, we
carry resentments of the people and events that caused us to be locked up. But
by turning away from the past and toward the light of the present we ensure our
release from bondage. Resentment will never let us
Jan shared a similar
story to Anita’s, only without any specific details. Her contemplation has
revealed how she bottled herself up in the past, and now her desire for
liberation is cautiously coaxing her to regain her freedom of spirit. We shared
a bright moment with these two brave souls, where light, love and joy have
triumphed over their chains. An age-old tale of redemption.
excessive love of life, has some very positive features as well. The dictionary
tells us, “application, intentness, study, affection, devotion, determination
(to effect a purpose or attain an object), tenacity, adherence to.” You can see
it’s going downhill somewhat, but still essentially positive. We have to turn
to the root, ni-vis, to sniff out the rat. It has an extensive range of
interesting meanings, but includes “to be fixed or intent on.” The affliction
must be that when you want something very much, you may trample on other people
who stand in your way, or miss some very valuable opportunities a little off to
the side. Excessive love produces myopia, and of course it leads to attachment.
It turns out that
excessive love of life is the flip side of aversion. Yoga asks us to remain in
a neutral state, poised between charging forward and pulling back.
The pranava aum
invites a reverse journey from manifestation, leading us to the unmanifest. We
aren’t released from bondage by rearranging factors of exterior manifestation,
but by passing through the cracks, so to speak. We shrink from objective
awareness into the vastness of the unmanifest, freeing ourselves from the
oppression of fixed forms.
We begin life as a
single cell that undergoes a prescribed unfoldment without any conscious
involvement from anyone. After birth we continue to unfold along more or less
fixed lines, like a flower stalk rising up out of the ground. Environmental
factors are certainly important, as they impinge on the innate program and
alter it for good or ill. Gradually a sense of self is introduced, and at some
propitious moment conscious awareness is born, like
the flower opening. This is the point where
we may lose faith in our
program of unfoldment and begin to flounder. We imagine that we are in charge,
and we are all too aware that we know nothing. We are incompetent, and the
future is a total mystery. We have met our ignorance, first of the afflictions.
In our bafflement,
we deputize the only aspect of mind that seems capable of dealing with our
ignorance, namely our ego. Despite its ignorance, the ego takes over from the
innate program, and begins to unintentionally shred it to pieces. It follows the advice of fools and is led far afield. And
as our inner assurance falls away to be replaced by an ignorant ego, we
desperately cling to pleasurable bits of the environment as substitutes for
inner bliss, and develop attachments to them. In a nutshell this is how the
other three klesas afflict us.
By this stage of our
study we are kissing goodbye to our afflictions. We are turning to Isvara, to
the love and divine pattern that is the solid and true ground of who we are. We
needed to see our afflictions and know them so we could let them go. There was
a real sense in the class that this has happened. As Nitya puts it, we are now
initiated into the yogic discipline of contemplation. Patanjali will soon show
us how meditating on the pranava, Aum, will take us into the heart of the
Some more of my conversation
with Wendy Oak, for your enjoyment and edification. Wendy
has said some things very beautifully here:
Best of luck digging down to
the bottom of the well with your bucket. It's a good metaphor, but we all know
you’ve scooped up some goodies already.... Take care, Scott
I know. And yes, I have
indeed. My bucket has dripped with nectar. It is Patanjali who is my issue. He
feels an intruder. Maybe if I knew him a bit better. Is there any reading about
him you would suggest, Scott?
There is nothing better than
Nitya's version of Patanjali. He manages to salvage the unitive aspect, while
Patanjali is fairly dualistic. It isn't Nitya's best work, but it’s far better
than the competition. Hopefully the class notes can help too. So there is
nothing else to read to fix things that I'm aware of.
Sometimes when we resist a teaching, it's because it's
getting close to something we've been guarding for a long time. That's why
persisting is important. At other times it is just off the mark. We have to
decide, but some leeway should be accorded to a great historical figure.
And in case you missed this bit from a past class notes:
I want to pass on a trio of
pithy sentences from Eknath Easwaran describing the Yoga Sutras. He writes
(Gita Vol. II, p. 22):
The heart of this program is
meditation, which Patanjali, a great spiritual teacher in ancient India,
divides conveniently into three stages, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
Patanjali's exposition is so precise and so free of dogma that I don't think it
can ever be improved on in these qualities. But it is written in a kind of
lecture note style, in the expectation that other teachers will elaborate on
these notes in their own way on the basis of their experience.
Perfect. The sutras are more
dense than koans even, often being simply a list of terms organized to remind
the "lecturer" what to cover and when. Some of Easwaran's Gita
commentary is not to my taste, but he gets off some great stuff here and there.
This comes from his commentary on VII, 1, which is a really commendable one.
Back to the present--I'm sure
you can handle it. Feel free to forward your complaints to me, because I like
to hear about them. Sometimes I can ameliorate them, or simply agree with them,
and I may address the ideas in future notes. Ta, Scott
Thank you so much Scott for
your welcome reply. You’re right of course. I would like to read something
about Patanjali’s life sometime. How he fits into it all. More anon.
in deepest gratitude. Wendy.
Nobody knows anything about
those guys, Vyasa, Patanjali, Buddha. It's all fictional. Vyasa means writer,
in other words, Anonymous. Patanjali may or may not exist. What you read about
him will be some proselytizer's tale. Send your gratitude to the ancient wise
rishis as a whole. They all contributed at the source to the great river that
has come down to us here in the lowlands. Peace, Scott
I was deeply shocked this
morning to read that Patanjali did not exist. It felt like a hit in my stomach.
Like a sudden bereavement.
And then to discover that
Buddha did not exist either was almost too much. I was totally stunned. Like
finding out about Father Christmas.
Now I am pondering about all
my dear friends, like Ganesa and Krishna and Siva. They probably didn't exist
Yet in a curious way we have
brought them to life, through loving them and their teachings. We clothe them
in our thoughts about them and our understandings. So now I am sure that
they all do exist somewhere out in the ethers and in our hearts too.
This makes me feel bad about
my fedupness with Patanjali. I am sorry I was cross with him. I see him now as
a fine figure, filled with wisdom and light who is kind enough to give us his
guidance. So he definitely exists for me and I am grateful that you helped me
to discover my regard for him and accept his teachings.
'The heart of this programme
is meditation.... I
do need to dive deeper here. Definitely lower the bucket and not rush to bring
I liked the pithy sentences
from EE. Really helpful to have a new view as it were. I suppose we are in the
first stage of dharana.
Thank you for being so
all for now.
Sorry about the pain caused
by helping pull out that rotten tooth or poisoned arrow or whatever. But you'll
feel better in the morning!
And you're right—-what we make of these imaginary figures
definitely exists, so we can use it to inspire and energize us, and as a means
of communicating with others.
PS Entering a really good
section of the YS after today
Passing on Stella's response,
memories of days gone by in Kerala. If only such sanity would prevail in our
"A good class is a kind.......
First someone mentions a
or observation or complaint.
Then we talk about
it, converting it to a
sensible mental picture.
Next we sit quiet and allow
trend to dissipate, allow for
an inner stillness."
When I read this, I feel it
is like American Indians and old Village heads and members in India did for
I remember when I was small,
many days at night people came and talked to my father and discuss these things
and came up with solutions or just listening to them.
And since we don’t meet for
two weeks, here’s an apropos reprise of Nitya’s Yoga Letter Seven, from about a
year back, regarding the question of whether we can allow life to unfold or if
we need to wrestle it into shape. Remember, this is a meditation, and there are
times when the opposite is appropriate:
a meditation in which the meditator does not meddle with the seemingly
ludicrous game that is going on as a surface play of the mind. In this peaceful
watching, inferential thinking and all argumentative reasoning can be laid to
rest for a while. There is no need to worry about how you can sink into the
depth of your being without making positive attempts to attain your release.
Just as individual units of the projective universe have their constituents
(dharma), which necessarily unfold their characteristic functions, the
universal substratum also has its own intrinsic nature. It is not projective.
Its function is analogically equivalent to the reemergence of the individual
existence, which loses its identity in universal existence.
By its constant repetition
and dwelling upon its meaning in the mind.
It was nearly dark
at the outset of the class, a reminder of how the year flies by. Only a few
sessions back we were finishing in daylight. Hard to believe that the first
decade of the twenty-first century is speeding to a close. To someone my age,
1984 still stands for the far-off future….
We opened with a
brief dip into the exercise Nitya offers at the end of his comments, a
meditation on a simple linkage of breath and aum. The class agreed it was
useful to have a structure to return to whenever the mind wanders off. We know
we should treat all of life as a meditation, but so often we forget, and
instead treat it as a series of isolated incidents. Having a simple format of
some sort trains us to conserve Isvara (in this case) as the core of
everything. Once we get the hang of it, we can apply what we’ve learned
throughout our everyday life. Thus, intelligent chanting of a mantra can be
tremendously “useful,” as well as restorative for the psyche.
The mantra fails to
be helpful when we mistake the form for the content. We might think Aum is like
a deity to be worshipped. Then our pseudo-compassion leads us to evangelize on
behalf of it. We are sure that if everyone bowed down before Aum they would all
be saved, and so on. Such types of seemingly religious behavior are nothing more
than clever and devious ways that the ego derails the efficacy of the mantra,
and they lead to tragedies great and small. Speaking of the anthropomorphizing
of the empyrean, after citing the classic cases of Krishna and Christ, Nitya
kind of imagination only brings distraction. Even so, there has to be some
direction in the mind that symbolically suggests what you are looking for. Thus
bhavana is both helpful and not helpful. Obsessive imagination can only bring a
caricature-like notion of the Absolute to the mind. Instead, your imagination
needs to be supported by the substantiality of a perennial truth.
A perennial truth is
lived and experienced directly, in the present moment. So we are only working
on ourself with our self here, free of supplied imagery. We cast off all
distracting thoughts, both good and bad, so that we can penetrate deeper into
come, and are not to be thought of as unspiritual per se. It’s not that wise
yogis are miraculously cured of experiencing distractions, it’s just that they
don’t follow them off the track. They recognize them for what they are,
ephemera. There is a lot of pretense in spiritual life due to people believing
that they have to project a faultless image. Only if all such imaginary
projections are discarded can the meditation be fruitful.
And yes, Patanjali’s
Yoga admits to fruition. The Gita’s apparently subsequent suggestion is to
avoid dwelling on the fruits, because they will wind up being yet another
clever distraction of the ego. But here we can provisionally speak of fruits,
though only in a general way. There are to be no
false promises! Nitya concludes by delineating
the goal and describing
the method used to obtain it: “The establishment of coordination between the
cogitating mind and the so-called mindless state of samadhi is achieved by
repeating the experience.” In other words, the more we dip in the river, the
sooner we learn to swim.
a word or phrase rapidly becomes boring and lulls the mind to stupor. To
counteract this, Nitya instructs us to always maintain an intelligent
assessment of the process. We are never to allow the practice to become
mechanical. If we were to set a goal of chanting aum a hundred times, for
instance, we would likely just be focused on the number: we would in reality be
meditating on the numbers 1 to 100. Numbers appeal to our “left brain,” so
numerical meditations appeal to the modern, exteriorized mentality. But the
so-called left brain is already overfed nowadays. We bring the “right brain”
into the equation by abandoning all hard edges and strict formulas. Chanting
aum is just a simple expression of being alive! Don’t make a big deal about it.
Aum is known as the
word of acceptance or acquiescence. It is perfectly neutral, like the English
phrase “So be it.” Thus it can be used to bring us back to neutrality when we
find ourself going off kilter. Just say aum!
The class went over
some of the ways in which we can rewrite our narratives of everyday life to
make them inspiring rather than deadening. We see on all hands how perverted
notions can lead well-intentioned people far afield. Casting those chains from
us is an essential task of our intelligence. Anita has been really learning how
negative imaginings serve no purpose whatever, and how they can just as easily
be framed in ways that inspire joy rather than dread.
Brenda discovered a
rare three-minute newsreel on Youtube of Helen Keller and her mentor Anne
Sullivan, exemplifying the power of repetition to accomplish even miraculous
and seemingly impossible feats. Their story, now ebbing out of the popular
imagination, is among the greatest achievements of the human race. Among many
other things, it reminds us to cherish our manifold gifts that we so casually
take for granted. Look it up!
We closed with
another silent chanting of aum. The group experience lends extra energy to the
one-pointed concentration which opens into vast inner fields of abundantly full
Susan related a beautiful
story about attending a bar mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage into adulthood,
over the weekend. In the main event, all the relatives of the budding adult
gather around him on the altar. At this bar mitzvah, there were actually two
great-grandfathers present. Both had come great distances and endured daunting
difficulties to honor their great-grandson. With a helper at each arm, they
painstakingly rolled their walkers up onto the bimah platform to stand with their family.
At the climax of the
ceremony, the rabbi hands the Torah, the sacred book, to each family member in
attendance. As it was passed around, Susan noticed that most of the relatives
took it and handed it back perfunctorily, but when it came to one of the
great-grandfathers, he held it with great reverence. It was clearly much more
than a routine act for him. His emotion was palpable to the entire assembly. He
treated the huge tome so lovingly and with such passion that it moved Susan to
tears. She could feel a lifetime, even many generations of lifetimes,
compressed in the embrace. Love of life and depth of experience were wordlessly
passed along to all present in the way he treasured that symbol of his religion
and culture. Looking around, she could see that every eye was glistening.
Susan felt this
scene exemplified the positive side of bhavana, the dwelling upon the meaning
within every situation. Having something concrete and perennially present, like
a sacred volume or a favorite chant, is a touchstone to return to again and
again with your finest thoughts and emotions, and the power of it grows with
the repetition. Even we who were two steps removed from the ceremony were
affected, by way of Susan’s passionate recounting of the experience. So the
blessing radiates outward, rippling beyond its unitive source, sometimes
visibly but most often invisibly.
reverence for a cherished symbol is a far cry from the projected divine beings
that attract those who prefer fantasy to substantiality. We have several
friends these days who are immersed in imaginary worlds teeming with gods and
goddesses and fairy sprites, which look to the outsider as the product of
wishful thinking. There is an undercurrent of despair in these superficially
charming fantasies. Such delusions can sway others, and might even be able to
make their lives more tolerable in the way children are charmed by fairytales,
but they run the risk of being drawn into psychic backwaters to circle about
endlessly in self-propelled eddies. It is very tricky to correctly discriminate
a true meaning from a false one. But the great-grandfather’s simple gesture is
to me many times more profound and real than an entire menagerie of celestial
Also, from the repetition of
the pranava mantra, the attainment of the disappearance of obstacles and the
turning inward of consciousness.
The present sutra
introduces a short section addressing obstacles. It is of inordinate value to
share our thoughts on these in a group, because each person’s obstacles reside
in their blind spots: that’s what blind spots are, basically. Since it’s much
easier to see other people’s faults than our own, there is every hope that,
even without any of the direct accusations and confrontation of classical
techniques, we can nonetheless dislodge some grasp of our own blind spots.
We began by
considering what obstacles are, as we must know them before we can ameliorate
them. Charles had recently been reading Elaine Pagel’s book, The
Satan. The original concept
was as an aspect of God that supplied impediments, something you could
attribute your misfortune to. Pagels, one of the greatest Biblical scholars of
any era, writes:
he first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less
opposed to God. On the contrary, he appears… as one of God’s obedient
servants…. In Biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of
a particular character…. What [the Hebrew storytellers] meant was any one of
the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing
human activity. The root stn means
“one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as an adversary.” (The Greek term diabolos, later
translated “devil,” literally means “one who
throws something across one’s path.”)…. The satan’s presence in a story could help account for unexpected
obstacles or reversals of fortune.
But this messenger is not necessarily
malevolent. God sends him, like the angel of death, to perform a certain task,
although one that human beings may not appreciate; as the literary scholar Neil
Forsyth says of the satan, “If the
path is bad, an obstruction is good.” Thus the satan may simply have been sent by the Lord to protect a
person from worse harm. (39-40)
Clearly, Judaism is a close kin in this matter with
Vedanta. The paranoia and otherness of the
devil came later, and these
are impediments in their own right. If you attribute your faults to an
implacable enemy, you have no need to work on yourself, and it reinforces all
the worst features of the ego to view the world that way.
Deb linked this
early idea of Satan with Vedanta’s concept of ignorance, more like a shadow
where light is reduced. Obstacles therefore are removed by wisdom.
Anita felt that
obstacles provide what she called a trigger. They call our attention to
problems that need attention, and so wake us up in a way. It’s true that we may
go through life without a care until something goes haywire, and then we start
to wonder what’s going on. Anita likened her idea to a watercolor painting. You
wash a surface with the paint, but any roughness or other texturing causes
variations in its uniformity, and these provide interest.
Fred had a similar
analogy, where life is like floating down a river. The obstacles are like rocks
in the stream, and we just flow around them and go on. Some may cause eddies or
force us into backwaters for a period, but eventually we continue along. Like a
painting’s underlayment, it is the obstacles that give the river its variations
and thus its interest. Without them a river is more like a canal, featureless
These ideas point
out a basic sanity in the group. While we are more or
less free of them, Patanjali has some real
serious obstacles in mind,
things that throw us utterly off the track, that thwart us from living a
fulfilling life. Things that need to be overcome before we can proceed. And
that’s a good way to consider the problem of obstacles. The class began with
the typical ill-considered idea that the
was to just chant aum all day long, and whatever prevented us from doing that
was an obstacle. Not at all! Wasting your life chanting or carrying out
meaningless rituals is one of the biggest obstacles for those who consider
themselves on a spiritual path. These are means to the end of a life worth
living, not ends in themselves, as Bill reminded us.
So what is it that
prevents us from being all we can be, from a life of excellence? Some
impediments may respond to chanting aum, and some may not. We have to identify
our “hangups” before we know what to do about them, which is why this section
of the study is particularly important.
The efficacy of aum
is to take us to a neutral mental state. Our initial reaction to stress is to
oppose it head on, but we have learned that doing so prolongs and even
increases the tension. To deal optimally with problems we need to access a
transcendentally neutral poise. Aum gathers the oscillating consciousness and
concenters it in the turiya, where we can witness the passing show with
Yet again, the point
is not to go into the turiya and disappear. Instead,
most of us want to bring our best wisdom to bear on our whole life. Moni
told the story of one Amma, who followed Nitya during the period Moni was his
personal assistant. Amma was very upset that she couldn’t meditate peacefully
because thoughts kept coming, and asked Nitya for advice. He told her to not
resist the thoughts, but to just watch them without reacting to them. That
didn’t satisfy her, so she went to guru after guru trying to get her mind to
Amma was a typical
neophyte who imagined that becoming free of her mind was the goal of
meditation. A healthy mind hums right along, however, doing what it’s supposed
to do. Suppressing it or otherwise reacting to it only makes the mind press
ahead ever more energetically. That’s exactly why spiritual techniques are
valuable: they redirect that dynamic energy in creative and unitive modes of
expression. So instead of rejecting yourself, you have to learn to be
comfortable with yourself. You become your own best friend. This game is not
about doing away with “you.” It’s about promoting you to a heightened state of
Anita felt confused
about the distinction between going with the flow and overcoming obstacles.
When do we take things as they come, and when do we knock them aside? This is a
crucial paradox, and one where we are prone to make plenty of mistakes. By
going with the flow of events, are we allowing our life to be determined solely
by obstacles? And how is it that we know who we are and what we should be doing
The world has its
own agenda, and a lot of the people in it would like to use other people’s
energy for their own benefit. On top of that, life is filled with necessary
duties that suck up our time and attention. So if we simply respond to life’s
demands, our dharma, our natural inclination to develop as unique individuals,
could be completely squelched. We have to chart a course to maximize our
freedom so that we can grow as our natural gifts are inclined to grow. In a
world gone mad with busywork, it’s a real art form to pry out anything like
Moni explained that
we have to make a sincere effort to keep functioning at our best, that it is no
accident. If we don’t try we don’t accomplish anything.
Charles agreed that the Protestant ethic, which is very
much in the driver's seat these days, is a kind of mania to keep people busy.
It is rife with an unacknowledged fear of anything below the surface in life,
coupled with a monumental disdain for those who are content to relax and enjoy
their time on Earth. Suspicion of others is rampant among the holier-than-thou
crowd, and God is visualized as a stern managerial type looking over your
shoulder with a frown. Look busy or you’re fired! As in fired in the fires of
To all this horse
shit we say aum. We drop out of those types of games, in search of peace. We
discover who we are, and foster our talents, and fill our hearts with joy and
love. We share whatever we have to offer with those around us. When we are
accused, we say aum. When we are praised, we say aum. When there is nothing, we
say aum. Many obstacles melt away of their own accord. For the rest we cinch up
our belts and wade in.
We will have a
couple of more classes on obstacles, and I’m sure the specific examples in the
text will dislodge some ideas in everyone. I really hope this can be a fruitful
part of the work, where we honestly and bravely assess our favorite blockages
and share them amongst ourselves, because to know them is to overcome them, in
large measure. Clothe them in an imaginary person if you prefer, like Rumi’s
Mullah Nasruddin, to avoid any embarrassment, but please do give it your best
thoughts. Those who write from afar, be sure to say if we can share your
contributions or not. Aum.
Charles also mentioned that
the elephant-headed god Ganesha was, like the early Satan, a placer of
obstacles. He is well known as the remover of obstacles but little known as a
source of impediments, so Deb and I looked him up later and found these two
entries for your amusement and edification:
from Hindu Art, by T. Richard Blurton (Harvard University Press,
Unlike Skanda, who was born
only to Shiva, Ganesha was born from Parvati. Throughout the myths of the two
sons, this opposition continues. Skanda is the god of hasty and unconsidered
action, while Ganesha has a reputation for being wily and acting only after
thought. Especially propitiated as the Remover of Obstacles, Ganesha is also,
when angered or ignored, the Placer of Obstacles. (104)
from Handbook of Hindu
Mythology, by George M. Williams
(Oxford University Press, 2008):
An account in the Linga
Purana gave one version of
[Ganesha’s] origin. The asuras and
the rakshashas [demons] performed
sacrifices and austerities and received a boon from Siva by which they were
able to defeat the devas (gods) in
battle. Indra and the other gods complained to Siva and prayed that he would
create an obstacle for the asuras
and rakshashas. Siva created from
himself a being, Vighneshvara, the lord of obstacles, who would place all sorts
of objects in the way of the asuras
and rakshashas and frustrate their
attempts to gain merit from their sacrifices and austerities, thereby
decreasing the effectiveness of their boon. Vighneshvara came from Siva’s amshas, a part of
his power, that was placed in the womb of
Parvati. As soon as Vighneshvara was born, he obstructed the wicked and aided
the righteous. (133)
Physical pain or distress,
mental depression, doubt, exaggeration, laziness, hankering after objects,
insanity, having no firm ground for spiritual orientation, instability—these
obstacles cause the distraction of the mind.
We continue within
the brief section addressing obstacles to samadhi, one that offers a preview of
the intensity of the Yoga Sutras, which do not hesitate to bring white heat to
bear on our illusions. In his brief but excellent commentary, Nitya presents
Patanjali’s list of obstacles in a way that shows how they are all interrelated.
Moreover, while we all share these blockages in a general way, each person will
have a unique complex of the issues that result in our inability to concentrate
and instead become diverted into sidetracks.
We should probably
restate for the record that yoga is primarily intended as psychotherapy for the
sane, and not necessarily as a remedy for any of the problems on the list. It
seems that some people imagine it to be a cure-all, but Patanjali’s point is
that these problems need to be corrected before the expertise of yoga can be properly
accessed. There is no intent here to minimize the seriousness of any of these
categories, any of which can and do take their sufferers out of contention for
yogic concentration. Chronic pain, for instance, monopolizes the attention very
effectively, and must be ameliorated before the mind can stabilize. Pain is in
fact an indication that something needs attention, so ignoring the problem and
meditating or chanting aum is exactly the wrong thing to do. We can go through
the whole list and see how awful each can be, but it didn’t seem helpful to do
in class. The point is that any or all of these can ruin your life, and it is
well to avoid them if possible.
reminded us that clinical depression is far more serious than the mere
depression experienced by most humans, and which we frequently discuss in
class. She will bring the latest definition to share next week. That being
said, the knowledge we share together, based on the insights of very
intelligent and careful observers of the psyche, namely the Indian rishis, can
be very efficacious at supporting a typically alert person to excel in mental
health and the joy of living. We offer it in the spirit of mutual benefit for
those who wish to avail themselves of it, and have no intentions of foisting it
on those who don’t.
That being said, in
the West in particular, the spirit of helpless victimization is fostered by
various institutions that have much to gain from it. We learn to humbly accept
our fate, which makes us dependable servants. Too, modern Christianity
epitomizes the miraculous intervention theme, insisting that we are helpless
without divine aid and so we must not look within ourselves for solutions. The
whole culture is shot through with crippling philosophies like these. While it
may console us in our unhappiness to know that we aren’t responsible, these
beliefs can be lumped under the category of “having no firm ground for
spiritual orientation.” Instead we should become self-reliant to the maximum
extent, and shrug off diversionary thoughts of victimhood that undermine our
self-respect. Our position is seldom incurable.
The only way to find
out if a problem is intractable is to try to fix it. Some are, some aren’t, but
how do you know? It’s a shame to give up before some significant effort has
been made, but we live in a culture that encourages surrender immediately after
the first shot is fired, or sometimes before. Needless to say, the Yoga Sutra
philosophy is rather more appreciative of what humans can accomplish, given a healthy
measure of dedication. In any case, yoga is best for those whose problems are
soluble. Whether they are or not, you have to overcome your problems before you
can attend to subtleties, which should be commensurate with your abilities and
interests. If you are missing some fingers, you can be a fine singer or
drummer, but don’t bother with the piano.
Susan had just been
to a soccer game in which her son had starred. She watched all the players
closely and noticed how when the mediocre ones were challenged by a defender
they kicked the ball away but then quit. It was as if they knew in advance they
couldn’t be successful. The good players, though, kicked and then followed the
action, going around the defender or away from them for another pass. They were
always pressing toward the goal with full intent. Absent was the defeatist
mentality of the poorer players, who were just trying to push the action away
from themselves as quickly as they could. Nor did they seem to even realize
that they were subtly giving up, as if resigned to their fate. The class
adopted this as a handy visual image for what Patanjali is encouraging: when an
obstacle appears, don’t let it stop you in your tracks but find a way to keep
Moni felt that she
experienced all of these obstacles after the death of her mother, and she told
us frankly of her suffering for many days after coming back from the funeral.
She was too depressed to return to work, and stayed home, sliding from one
distracted state of mind to another. Then one day she realized she had to go to
work or she would never get out of her depression. It took a major effort, but
once she was back on the job she found her spirits lifting, and she gradually emerged
from the state of despair that was gripping her.
Having something to
do is underrated as a curative aid. Focusing on a project and getting the body
moving can be a monumental act of will for anyone immobilized by their
obstacles, but utilizing concentrated will power can gradually bring the system
back online, like getting a heavily loaded freight train rolling. At first
there is a lot of steam and puffing without any movement, but soon there is a
tiny increment accompanied by great sound and fury. Slowly, slowly, static
friction is replaced by rolling friction, and the beast picks up speed. But you
have to keep up the pressure.
Getting underway is
the hardest part by far. Very often a stuck person will be self-medicating with
drugs or alcohol, which sap any will to escape from the prison of obstacles. As
you longingly gaze out through the bars, you may take some resolve to break
free, but you have to wait until the drugs wear off to start. As the moment
approaches, the pain mounts, a mental struggle ensues, and before you know it
you have taken another dose. Temporary relief, but no escape.
A large chunk of the
class was spent discussing Jill Bolte Taylor’s very interesting book, My
Stroke of Insight. She had
brain taken offline by a severe stroke, which launched her into her right brain
consciousness, which she compared to nirvana. Afterwards she spent eight years
regaining her left brain skills so that she could communicate the experience to
others. Being a brain scientist, she has an excellent grasp of what happened
during the entire experience.
studies and her stroke have shown us is that we have within us the blissful state
of oneness with the Absolute as part of our makeup. Building on top of that,
the sequential intellect, with its language and number sense and general
dualism, being brought into dominance, covers up our “spiritual” side to the
point we forget it even exists. Thus, to reconnect with our spirit, all we have
to do is relinquish the dominance of our left brain. Once we have re-membered
our core, we can integrate it with our surface mind in a happy confection,
liberating our abilities and infusing our life with joy.
Deb noted that the
ancient analogy of the two birds sitting on a branch, one witnessing while the
other eats the five (sensory) fruits, is a pictographic image of the right and
left brain dichotomy. That’s exactly how our dual brain works, according to current
It helps to realize
we’re not accessing some far off, weird state, but something that really is
right inside of us. Yet if we cling to the distractions of left brain dominance,
we can go through a whole lifetime and never realize the treasure we carry
within. Or, as in some forms of mental illness, the left and right brains are simply
out of synch and not communicating properly, so our psyche is dis-integrated.
We need both aspects to be healthy and well-adjusted as well as integrated, to
be at our best.
insights is a fine book titled The Religious Case Against Belief, by James Carse, also highly recommended reading.
Carse’s thesis is that belief and religion are two separate things, like left
and right brain functions. Often we mistake belief for religion, with very bad
outcomes. Even in the Gurukula it is hard to shake the confusion between the
two, and whenever I bring it up it engenders strong opposition. In his
introduction Carse writes:
a religious case against belief obviously implies that religion is not strictly
a matter of belief. It may come as a surprise that a thoughtful survey of the
history of religion provides scant evidence for an extended overlap of the two.
Quite simply, being a believer does not in itself make one religious; being religious
does not require one to be a believer. This improbable distinction has been
hidden by the tenacious notion that religion is chiefly a collection of
Because of this confusion, we
waste a lot of time trying to pin down exactly what we should believe, as if
this was the key to heaven. Whole lifetimes are dedicated to splitting the
hairs in just the right way. Yet one generation’s “fighting words” are the next
generation’s disinterested shrug.
Carse, an expert on
the history of religion, demonstrates his thesis with armloads of examples of
the disasters brought about by belief systems. Beliefs require the setting up
of non-believers as opponents and, as psychologists have demonstrated, the urge
to divide and fight precedes any actual distinction between the antagonists. Belief
turns out to be one of the most tenacious obstacles of all, probably residing
under “exaggeration” in Patanjali’s list. We should remember the Gita’s advice
in V, 15: “The all-pervading One takes cognizance neither of the sinful nor the
meritorious actions of anyone; wisdom is veiled by unwisdom; beings are deluded
thereby.” In our present scheme, we can reword this as “the right brain is
veiled by the left brain, causing us all sorts of delusions,” but also offering
us new and exciting potentials if we can bring the two hemispheres together.